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Messages, diary entries from Cuomo's accusers, staffers describe 'dehumanizing and traumatizing' workplace

Copies of text messages and more included in the investigation into New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo offer insight into what staffers called an abusive workplace.

On the afternoon of June 5, 2020, Charlotte Bennett broke down in a text message to a friend.

“My life is spiraling out of control,” she wrote.

“charlotte you need to leave,” her friend responded. “You need to get out right f------ now.”

Bennett’s friend told her to return to the Albany, New York, hotel where she’d been living and pack her bags like she wouldn’t be coming back, to write everything down with times and dates and to keep it all in a secure place.

“This workplace has been toxic from the start in every possible way and i PROMISE you this is not all there is,” her friend said. “I f------ promise this is not it.”

Bennett was responding to an interaction with her boss, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, that had her about to “burst into tears” and “shaking,” according to screenshots included in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo. Bennett’s June texts — along with other messages, diary entries and emails — characterize the governor’s office as a toxic and abusive work environment.

Image: Charlotte Bennett's messages to a friend on June 5, 2020.
Charlotte Bennett's messages to a friend on June 5, 2020. The expletives have been blurred by NBC News.State of New York Attorney General's Office

Even months before the June conversation, Bennett had expressed having difficult interactions with Cuomo in her role as an aide for the governor. Cuomo told her to memorize the lyrics to “Danny Boy” and quizzed her on them in May 2019, she texted a friend. A few months later, she messaged a friend that Cuomo had only spoken to her twice that day, each time to tell her he didn’t like her hair.

“Definitely quitting,” she told a fellow staffer. “Genuinely quitting as soon as possible, it’s taking everything in me to deal with this calmly.”

She messaged the same staffer, who was not identified, on New Year’s Day last year to tell them Cuomo had asked her to sing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“The hazing never stops,” Bennett’s colleague responded.

But a few weeks later, Bennett told her parents she felt she had a good day with her boss, telling them she and Cuomo had a long discussion about her career. She told investigators that on Jan. 19, 2020, she went to drop off a speech for Cuomo at the governor’s mansion and he asked her to “tell him something.”

Bennett recalled talking to Cuomo about how his 2015 legislation “Enough Is Enough” changed her life and disclosed to him that she had been sexually assaulted in college. She told him how it led to her interest in working in the office, according to her testimony to investigators.

She messaged her father that day saying she had "a long chat w gov today though."

"I kinda hate that it helps, but it does," she wrote. "An hour or two w him shouldn’t erase all the bullshit but it helps. It was a long and emotional convo."

Bennett didn’t have many notable interactions with Cuomo after that but happened to see him later that year in May, the report said. Cuomo allegedly asked about other staffers in the office, whether they were “hitting” on her and whether she was interested in marrying them, according to her text messages and testimony.

Then they discussed an upcoming speech at her alma mater, Hamilton College, and in offering advice about how to deliver the speech, Cuomo allegedly repeated “you were raped” at her forcefully, multiple times.

“The way he was repeating ‘you were raped and abused and attacked and assaulted and betrayed’ over and over again while looking me directly in the eyes was something out of a horror movie,” Bennett messaged a co-worker. “It was like he was testing me.”

Image: Charlotte Bennett
Charlotte Bennett, a former aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, in Warren, Vt., on Feb. 27.Elizabeth Frantz / The New York Times via Redux file

The interaction was uncomfortable, she said, describing how she had tried to change the subject by asking how the pandemic was affecting Cuomo. He allegedly told her he was lonely and they discussed celebrity crushes, according to her testimony and messages.

Cuomo said in a Tuesday statement that he was simply explaining how he would choose to give the speech, “including delivering it in a forceful manner by pointedly emphasizing to her audience the powerful words that she was raped and then violated a second time by her school in how they handled her assault.”

Their conversations allegedly escalated into the June 5 conversation, where Bennett says Cuomo discussed his desire for a girlfriend in Albany. She told investigators, and referenced in her text messages, that the governor had asked about age differences in relationships, according to the report.

Bennett, who had just turned 25, said Cuomo told her he’d have a relationship with anyone over the age of 22 and asked whether she’d ever been with an older man.

“This is grooming,” she said in text messages. “We talked about my relationships and why I am skeptical of monogamy and my past tattoos and his ex etc etc.”

When Bennett tried to change the subject by discussing a tattoo she wanted, Cuomo allegedly told her to get it on her butt, she told investigators.

Cuomo denying wrongdoing

In a pre-recorded video statement Tuesday, Cuomo accused the report of being tainted by bias and said he intended to “share the truth” with his own report.

"The facts are much different than has been portrayed," he said. "I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances."

Cuomo also responded to Bennett’s recounting of events in a statement from his office refuting a number of allegations made in the attorney general’s report. He characterized their relationship as one of a paternal mentorship. He described his comments to her regarding loneliness as a discussion on mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.

“His comments had nothing to do with a desire to be physical with Ms. Bennett. He remembers speaking with her about her own living situation during the pandemic and the isolation, and simply wanted to share what he believed was a feeling felt by many others during this difficult time,” the statement said.

Cuomo’s office also denied advising Bennett to get a tattoo on any specific body part but advised her to get a tattoo that could be hidden due to future job prospects.

Image: Charlotte Bennett's direct messages with fellow Cuomo accuser Lindsey Boylan on Twitter in December 2020. The text was redacted by the AG's office.
Charlotte Bennett's direct messages with fellow Cuomo accuser Lindsey Boylan on Twitter in December 2020. The text was redacted by the AG's office.State of New York Attorney General's Office

“The Governor understands that Ms. Bennett took his comments and conversations with her to mean something else,” he said. “He never intended to make Ms. Bennett feel uncomfortable or suggest anything untoward in what he thought was a paternalistic and mentoring relationship.”

Bennett later asked to be transferred, leaving the governor’s health policy team and ultimately quitting her job by November. She told Lindsey Boylan, who had worked for Cuomo and also accused him of misconduct, in a private Twitter message in December that she was “scared to imagine” what would happen if she rejected Cuomo.

“The verbal abuse, intimidation and living in constant fear were all horribly toxic — dehumanizing and traumatizing,” Bennett said. “And then he came on to me.”

Other staffers also discussed toxic environment

Other messages were included in the attorney general’s report following Bennett and others who came forward with their allegations against Cuomo, offering insight as to how some staffers felt about the situation. When discussing the workplace stories in emails from March, one person said it was “not even close” to the environment of being there every day and that it was actually “so much worse.”

“The abuse and the mind games,” they said.

The person’s identifying information was redacted, and it's unclear if they were a former or current staff member.

A chat message included in the attorney general’s report said, “Hopefully when this is all done people will realize the culture — even outside the sexual harassment stuff — is not something you can get away with.”

A diary entry written by an unidentified senior staff member on March 8 was included in the report. It said Cuomo either knew “exactly what he was doing” or was “so narcissistic that he thought all women wanted” his attention and questioning.

"I’m disgusted that Andrew Cuomo — a man who understands subtle power dynamics and power plays better than almost anyone in the planet — is giving this loopy excuse of not knowing he made women feel uncomfortable,” the entry said.

CORRECTION (Aug. 4, 2021, 12:19 p.m. ET): A photo caption in a previous version of this article misspelled the first name of one of the women who accused Gov. Andrew Cuomo of misconduct. She is Lindsey Boylan, not Lindsay.